If there’s one element that characterises Time Attack above all else, it’s drama. The tension between competitors, against the elements, straining at the leash to batter the clock – it’s never relaxing, the adrenaline pumps with savage and unrelenting force. And Sam Pickering knows more about the inherent drama and tension than most. Proudly and fiercely competing in the Club 4WD class in his BC Racing Impreza, he picked up a mighty six wins in six consecutive rounds this season… before disaster struck. At Round 6 at Donington Park, on the final cool-down lap of the day, the car suffered a catastrophic engine bearing failure. The silver lining was that Sam had already posted a time that was good enough to put him in P1, but nevertheless this was a murky cloud indeed. With Round 7 at Brands Hatch looming large on the horizon, it was a situation serious enough that it might have spelled game-over for most people.
But Sam is not most people. “The very next day, the engine went in for surgery to diagnose the root cause of the issue,” he says. “It soon became apparent that cylinder 4 had suffered a big end bearing failure, the infamous Subaru rod knock. This was the third year for the engine that was originally built for 500bhp as a road vehicle, so the fact that it was being run in excess of these power levels as a circuit car was already exceptional. We then had to make a decision on what to do – rebuild, or call it a day for the season and retire.”
A tricky decision indeed – after all, option A would involve a huge amount of complexity and investment within a very tight timeline; option B was far from ideal, but retiring at this point would still mean finishing in P2 overall in the championship. Would Sam be happy to settle for second place?
No. Of course he wouldn’t. The whole point of competing is to relentlessly push to be the best, and throwing in the towel simply isn’t an option. The decision was rapidly arrived at with minimal delay – the engine needed open-heart surgery, stat.
“Upon further inspection of the block, we discovered a crack in one of the liners,” he says. “This rendered the block unserviceable, along with all of the other internal components. That meant a full rebuild had to take place – so it made sense that instead of building it to the same power levels again, we would build it for the future and use components capable of coping with a lot more power.”
And so the scrabble for parts began. It can be a stressful undertaking to acquire such specific componentry at short notice, but there was no room for compromise here and the team were adamant that every part hard to be correct to fulfil their future-proofed big-power brief. With the help of assorted friends and contacts, the shopping list was fulfilled piece-by-piece, and once everything was accrued in a shiny pile, the block could go down to the machine shop.
It was all really coming down to the wire by this point. With just six days to go before Round 7 at Brands Hatch, the block and heads were ready to collect. “This meant that a colossal amount of work and multiple hurdles to overcome were just ahead of us,” Sam explains. “The Friday before the event the car was ready, missing the running-in day we had booked at an airfield. Drastic measures were called for, and the running-in had to be undertaken on a private industrial estate deep into the late hours of the night. Mapping commenced early the next morning, and thankfully everything went as planned and we were all set to head off to Brands Hatch on the Saturday afternoon.”
Session 1 commenced on Sunday – race day – and on the first warm-up lap the car started to suffer oil surge, an unforeseen complication that hadn’t been a concern with the previous lesser-powered setup. It quickly became evident that in spite of having been advised to run two lots of baffle plate in the sump, the oil just wasn’t able to get to the pick-up fast enough. Thankfully this is a skilled and knowledgeable team, and they were able to diagnose the issue and promptly sort it before any damage was caused; much the astonishment of the bystanders, they fixed the problem trackside, jacking up the Impreza, removing the sump and ejecting one of the baffle plates before bolting everything back together. This resolved the surge issue, although unfortunately Sam had missed Session 2 with all the drama.
There was still all to play for, but the gods of motorsport were determined not to give the Team BC battler an easy ride. “Qualifying started and we were all ready to go,” says Sam. “Out onto the track we went, and I hadn’t even completed one timed lap when the car suffered oil pressure warning messages on the dash. Devastated and not prepared to risk possible damage to the engine, I shut the car off leaving Clearways, the last corner of Brands Hatch. I rolled through the line and round turn 1 to come to a stop and generate a session red flag, and was then recovered to the pits. On the plus side, we had technically completed a timed lap and therefore had actually won the championship right there on a points basis!”
An amazing outcome there – perhaps not in the way they’d imagined, but Sam and the team had done it! However, there was no time to rest on those luxuriant laurels, as the day wasn’t done and there was still a car to fix.
“We began to investigate to problem – perhaps an oil pump issue, we thought? The final was only an hour after the qualifying, and with the car stripped, boost pipes off, coil packs removed and bumper off the car, I decided to crank the engine over and check the GoPro footage to see the in-car mechanical gauge and see what it read. To my amazement, it showed a solid 7 bar – which meant that the dash oil pressure sensor was at fault!” Relief indeed, and with time ticking away the team set about hurriedly making the Impreza car-shaped again. Already four minutes into the session, the bumper was thrown back on with a couple of push-clips while the boost pipes went back in as Sam wriggled back into his race gear. Out he went like a man possessed, the car still cold and with only ten minutes remaining in which to put a lap in that was quick enough to take the P1 trophy.
“In lap 2 I managed a 53-second time,” he says. “I came into the pits, and of course the in-car radio gear wasn’t connected so we had no way to relay lap times to the car. Upon realising I’d done a 53-second lap, I wasn’t happy with that and set out to do some more. After another few laps full of traffic, I managed to put in a 52.4-second time on the last lap of the day – good enough for P1 in Club 4WD and P2 for the entire session.”
It’s an astonishing achievement, a truly Herculean effort by everybody involved. And after all that stress and chaos, are Sam and the team now finally able to relax and enjoy the victory? No, there’s no time for that. There are more tweaks to be made to the car, before they do it all over again at Snetterton at the end of October. Time Attack? It really is all about the drama.
October 1, 2021 | By: Apex Performance